Conflict & Crisis

10.20.15 5:00 AM ET

The World Can’t Afford All Its Refugees

Record numbers are straining humanitarian agencies to the breaking point—and leaving those fleeing war zones without access to basic food and water.

"Do you see my eyes?" the elderly woman asked, standing in front of her cramped thatch-and-mud home and pointing at the clouded yellow coloring around her pupils, often a sign of a medical affliction. "This is what happens when we have a famine."

Her young granddaughter held tightly to her leg amidst a sea of frayed white tarps strapped onto huts in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. No one in the camp had been given food for months.

It was April of last year and she and the 8,000 other residents had fled violence and sought refuge in the camp they called Mugunga III. But four months earlier, the World Food Program (WFP) was forced to scale back its food distribution programs in the country, leaving this shanty town with nothing, and a half-million others across the country with little or no food. It was a desperate solution to a $105 million budget shortfall that the WFP grappled with that year in the Congo.

Fast-forward to today. More than 80 million people in the world require humanitarian assistance, including 60 million refugees. But basic food, water and health assistance for the world’s most vulnerable populations is falling staggeringly short of what’s needed.

This isn’t because countries are scaling back their humanitarian funding, but because the need for it is dramatically on the rise and donors aren’t keeping up.

It’s not just forgotten conflicts like the violence in eastern Congo that the world is failing to address. Even the most politicized and spotlighted warzones aren’t being supplied what’s desperately needed on the ground.

Take Abeer Balcheh, a mother of four living in Amman, Jordan, after escaping Syria. Her food rations were reduced by half, to $14 per person each month after WFP scaled back aid for 1.7 million refugees in December. During a visit in April, she lamented that the cuts could force her and her husband to return to Syria. “He says ‘I can’t take it anymore, I want to go back because it’s the only solution,’” she said. “I ran out of rationalizations to convince him to stay.”

Then, on Sept. 1, WFP stopped rations to 366,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon because money ran out. “We expect the situation to get more dire,” Executive Director Ertharin Cousin told reporters in a briefing last month. Just like Balcheh, more and more of the 630,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan are deciding to return to war-torn Syria because the conditions in refugees camps abroad are increasingly unlivable. The shortfalls are also pushing Syrians to look for new places to run to, as seen in the recent influx of refugees to Europe.

Meanwhile, the White House and the United Nations are trying out new fundraising methods, turning to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to help raise the missing money for Syria. The most successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign raised $20 million; Syria, not to mention the rest of the world, needs billions more.

For 2015, the UN says it requires $19.7 billion to respond to the needs of almost 83 million people requiring humanitarian assistance around the world. According to its own financial tracking service, only $8 billion in funding has been collected so far.

For the second year ever, the UN has designated four countries level three or “L3,” a category reserved for the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. They are Syria, Iraq, Yemen and South Sudan. In all of these, the funding gap is close to 50 percent.

For 2015, the UN is seeking $8.4 billion in funding to support those affected by war inside Syria and the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled the country. Today, only $4.3 billion has been collected.

In Iraq, where 8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, $340 million in the UN appeal is still needed.

In July, funding shortfalls meant that 80 percent of the health programs supported by humanitarian agencies in Iraq had to close. In turn, 500,000 children could not be immunized against measles and polio.    

Healthcare, clean water and food assistance programs in Iraq are all due to run out of money in December if more money isn’t raised, Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator and undersecretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs, warned last week in New York City.   

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In Yemen, there are now 21 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, causing the UN to up its original $750 million appeal for Yemen in 2015 to $1.6 billion. To date, it is only 46 percent funded.

Like Syria, South Sudan has two UN funding appeals. The UN’s $1 billion in-country humanitarian assistance plan is only 50 percent funded, while the UN’s $657 million appeal for refugees from the conflict has only raised 17 percent of what’s needed.

This gap is partly because people are more willing to give money to help victims of natural disasters than they are refugees fleeing violence and those trapped within war-torn countries, according to humanitarian aid organizations.

“The American public is more generous in response to a natural disaster — for example, an earthquake in Nepal, a cyclone in the Philippines — and they struggle to understand how their contributions will make a difference in a Yemen, in an Iraq, in a Central African Republic, where the suffering seems great and the cause seems ongoing and endless,” says Greg Ramm, vice president for humanitarian response at Save the Children.

Therefore when a humanitarian aid organization puts a funding appeal out for a natural disaster, it will raise far more money than a request for a place like South Sudan or Syria, says Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy manager at Oxfam America. But aid groups are unable to shift that money raised to other crises, even if the victims of political conflict are most in danger and need of support.

“You have a set of humanitarian crises that are conflict-related that are outstripping any reasonable capacity to respond,” Ramm says.

With protracted conflicts becoming the new normal, the humanitarian community is asking itself how it can operate more effectively in an environment where assistance is no longer about short-term crisis response, but meeting severe long-term needs.

Funding is just one piece of the puzzle that keeps humanitarian assistance from reaching those most in need.

In many of these war zones, it is just too dangerous for aid workers to operate. In Afghanistan, the U.S. accidentally bombed a hospital being run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the city of Kunduz, killing at least 22 people. On the same day, in northern Syria, an airstrike killed a rescue worker as he helped search for survivors of an earlier bombing. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has repeatedly kidnapped and killed humanitarian aid workers.

In Yemen, where a Saudi Arabian-led coalition is fighting Houthi rebels with U.S. logistical and intelligence support, coalition airstrikes are believed to be responsible for the majority of the roughly 2,300 civilians killed in the civil war.

“In Yemen, our team in Sanaa, with all of the bombing, they barely sleep through a night. They’re really under fire,” says Jason Cone, executive director of MSF-USA.

“Across all conflicts, we’re seeing much more need than aid organizations are able to deliver, with pretty much no success on the political tract,” he adds, echoing the lament of other humanitarian groups.

While these wars rage on, there is little energy or attention being paid to resolving them, several experts say. For humanitarians, it is a dispiriting environment in which to work.

“I think there is some worry that we’re basically being bogged down putting band-aids on tremendous human suffering, but not able to make the kind of progress that drew us to this work in the first place,” says Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps.

Funding would make a difference on the ground, but more than that is needed to bring “the kind of interventions and work that will not only put band-aids on the crisis—not only save lives—but actually help create conditions for addressing the root causes and beginning to move these societies from fragility to stability,” he says.